Sometimes you need to shout to be heard

 24 August 2014


 The federal government will reportedly consider slashing billions of dollars worth of research funding from universities if Parliament blocks its sweeping higher education changes, with a “senior government source” saying universities should be wary of “cutting off their nose to spite their face”.  A profoundly stupid senior government source, obviously. who seems not to understand the damage such cuts would cause to national wellbeing, across multiple domains – economic , social, cultural. This item from the vault reflects on a rumoured proposal by the Gillard government to slash medical research which was apparently dropped in the face of a public outcry and loud protests from researchers themselves (although the Gillard government cut deeply into other areas of research, as has the Abbott government).  It was first published in The Australian on 15 June 2011 but the theme remains pertinent. 




Repugnant threats of violence against academics’ research on climate change reminds us that much of what occurs in universities is of a political nature.

What is taught and how it is taught influences social thinking and attitudes; remember the culture war and the depiction of universities being inhabited by Marxist ideologues?

The outcomes of research in both the natural and social worlds profoundly shape the zeitgeist. Think Einstein’s general theory, Keynes’s general theory, Fleming and penicillin, medical research and pharmacology generally . . . and research on climate change.

All these things have political implications of one kind or another because they affect the way we see and inhabit the world.

Generally, you would think the activities of research and teaching makes the world an overall better place; kinder, safer, healthier, wealthier. And, of course they do, setting aside the objection that some of the scientific, social and industrial advances of the past beg the solutions we now seek to present problems.

Why then is the academy and its contributions to human welfare, actual and potential so seemingly undervalued in the polity?

One commentator recently observed that there was a certain boganism abroad in parts of Australian society that actively deprecated higher education.

And this boganism turns up in the strangest places. Earlier this year The Australian itself opined that because Canberra is largely populated by a university educated elite whose so-called progressive views are somehow ahead of mainstream Australia, it’s quite OK that these views be discounted, if not entirely dismissed.

But members of this same university educated elite – the people who run the great, creaking machinery of government – are themselves somewhat dismissive of the academy. Terry Moran (head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) recently said that he had “long since given up” commissioning academic research to help solve important policy problems. “It’s a waste for an academic to work on a government problem only to find that a solution’s been agreed and implementation is under way by the time the research has been completed,” he said.

A number of speakers at the Universities Australia conference earlier this year put their collective fingers on part of the problem: while what universities do is inherently of political significance, universities themselves are not very good at politics.

Glyn Davis, the  chair of UA, summed it up neatly: all major proposals for change are driven by governments, not by the sector, so that universities sit at the margins of how policy is made, often by people with not a lot of understanding of the sector. He concluded that “until we persuade people that higher education matters, politicians will and must ignore the sector”.

The palpable lack of clout of the university sector is demonstrated by media reporting of the recent budget (in which the university sector did relatively well, in immediate terms).

The two national dailies, both of which have higher education supplements, provided a fairly comprehensive coverage of measures affecting the sector. But in the rest of the media, it was practically diddly-squat. The Age’s 20-page budget supplement, for example, devoted six sentences to the school chaplaincy program and 12 sentences to higher education. The Herald Sun devoted all of three sentences in passing higher education (referring to MyUni website and additional funding for regional universities) as against a separate article of 10 sentences devoted to sports funding, along with a photo of champion pole vaulter Steve Hooker.

But in both The Age and Herald Sun coverage was a pointer to the sort of things the sector needs to do to establish a public presence (clout) in order to be heard.

The Age devoted a separate small article to the fact that doomsday scenarios of drastic cuts to medical research funding failed to materialise. And the Herald Sun featured eight vox pop boxes marking budget outcomes against the top three wishes of various people, two of which featured the wish that medical research funding not be cut.

When rumours emerged in mid-March that medical research funding might be cut by up to $400 million over three or four years, the research community mobilised to, in the words of one academic, “unleash the beast”.

In next to no time a campaign website had been established, petitions were circulating, there were numerous op-ed pieces and news articles, and white-coated researchers left their laboratories to march and rally and provide content for evening TV news bulletins. For weeks, the government persisted with the conventional response to budget speculation of ruling nothing in or nothing out.

Then just before Easter, the Prime Minister signalled a retreat, lauding the contribution and importance of medical research.

This was a campaign that captured public attention for a university issue to an extent that I can’t recall in the past. It was extensively covered not just by the usual suspects – the trade press – but by mainstream media, notably the tabloid press and commercial TV news.

The plain politics of this issue was that, evidently, the government figured research funding was a soft target which would lead to protests from the research community but would not adversely resonate in the wider community.

The government figured wrong. There’s evidently a well-spring of community sympathy for medical research as the epitome of a public good activity which makes a real contribution to community, family and individual wellbeing. And in the speed and effectiveness of their response the academy reached out to the wider community, rather than just speak among themselves and voice their polite protests in the corridors of government.

Whatever it was the government might have been planning, the research community’s campaign made the politics of it all far too difficult. Indeed, it’s a wonder that the government persisted so long before publicly ruling out the rumoured cuts.

Now you can’t mount this sort of response every day on every issue but it illustrates the point that you won’t be heard in the corridors of government if the decision makers won’t listen, and they’re unlikely to listen unless you have some well-spring of public sympathy. So the academy needs to reach out far more to the community on issues of concern, particularly to the growing body of graduates.

And while it may be rude to shout, sometimes you need to, just to be heard above the clamour of other interests.

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